Aw, shoot, we left the rover on Mars. I'm not going back there.
The Opportunity, which landed on Mars in 2004, was expected to stay there a cool three months, gather data, and bounce. But it had such a good time, it decided to stay, and NASA just celebrated its 12th anniversary this week.
Opportunity is powered by solar energy, so keeping its panels clean of gross Mars dust has been its own challenge. Winds, however, helped keep the panels clear this winter, even though it was the coldest in seven years, according to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
"Opportunity has stayed very active this winter, in part because the solar arrays have been much cleaner than in the past few winters," said Mars Exploration Rover Project Manager John Callas, of the JPL.
So what does Opportunity do all day? Mostly look at rocks. When its vessel landed, on Jan. 24, 2004, it deployed an air bag (it's all about safety) and rocked back and forth in the Eagle Crater until it was stable. Then the vessel opened, and the Opportunity and its twin, Spirit, climbed out, like a creepy, creepy birth. They immediately went to work examining rocks in the crater, which is where they found "evidence of wet, acidic environmental conditions on ancient Mars," prompting further prodding into proof of extinct life on the red planet.
Sadly, Spirit was declared dead in 2011 after not responding to Earth for a year. Just like a mom to declare you dead for not calling home.
As Opportunity continued surveying on its own, it became evident that it was going to be strong enough to carry out its mission for much longer than expected, so Opportunity has been exploring the rocks on the perimeter of another crater - Endeavor - for the last five years, all alone. The crater is 14 miles wide, and full of important artifacts that color our picture of ancient Mars. The crater is suspected to have clay and water that would indicate former habitability.
In its 12 years on Mars, Opportunity has traveled more than a marathon worth of distance: 26.5 total miles. I bet it misses Spirit.